I wish I had been exposed to different book genres early in life, and read more material from local writers. I don’t know if this is the case with most ’80s kids, but when I was growing up, I heavily leaned toward modern foreign-made/imported English books and stories, not homegrown lore.
My shelves were filled with the standard tween/teen fare, particularly those from the (ghostwritten, apparently) Sweet Valley series. Kids, Twins, High, University… hell, I was even hooked on those epic Magna Editions! (Remember Margo Black, the batshit-crazy murderer lady hell bent on being a Wakefield? Gaaaaawd I loved her and her drama.)
I guess the same goes for my kin. One was addicted to Danielle Steel novels, and another kept a yellowed and torn-up copy of John Grisham’s The Firm in the bathroom for at least three years. I think the entire family — and all the house guests — read all or parts of that book while on the toilet.
My point is I don’t think I ever saw any books by Filipino authors in my childhood home. Back then, the notion was that reading local books (especially with dialogue in the vernacular) was uncool, baduy. At the time my only example of local fiction books were the tacky, Filipino-language sexytime soap opera-ish books with white covers being sold in bookstore chains; even now, as an adult, I still avoid those shelves.
I don’t remember seeing comics or graphic novels around the house, either. We had Pugad Baboy and those Archie comics digests, sure, but I don’t recall my brothers being comic-book guys. Or if they actually liked to read for leisure or not.
In college, I met people who would help broaden my reading horizons. A guy friend I had an intense crush on for at least four years introduced me to Neil Gaiman‘s work, starting with American Gods and The Sandman series. A friend I’ve known since freshman year lent me her Gabriel Garcia Márquez books. A high school friend got me hooked on fiction by Chuck Palahniuk (the famously gnarly short story Guts was my formal introduction), and I also started reading Sin City and Watchmen. Even my Danielle Steel-loving blood relation branched out and got addicted to the Harry Potter series, and I read her big hardbound copies instead of reviewing for make-or-break exams.
But here’s the thing: I was still reading stories from overseas authors, still learning more about their countries, histories and myths. I had absolutely no clue about local writers, their work, or their source material.
Fast forward to more than a decade. Things have definitely changed. We see it everywhere, from businesses to design trends to ads to book-shop shelves: there’s immense pride to be felt in being a Filipino, by blood or at heart. Slap MNL and PH everywhere! This goes for Filipino literature too — I’m sure our artists and writers have delved into our rich history and culture throughout the decades, and put their own spin on things, but I think that hard work is being highlighted more, and (more importantly) adapted and learnt by new generations. One can’t discount foreign influences and current trends, but I don’t care; I’ll read whatever comes my way.
I figured I should make up for lost time, and learn more about homegrown lore and graphic novels/komiks while I’m at it. So for this edition of The Reading Spree, I’m focusing on three amazing comic book titles done by Filipino writers and artists, and founded on our myths and monsters. There’s the horror/crime comics series Trese, which now has five print volumes and a sixth one on the way. Skyworld‘s another great read, and sold as two print volumes. Lastly, sections of the popular online comic Tabi Po have been translated to English and made available as two e-books.
Welcome to the Filipino underworld. I strongly suggest keeping the lights on as you read. And you better hope these creatures don’t show up in the real world. 😉️
Click on the links below or keep scrolling down:
- Trese Volumes 1-5, Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo
- Skyworld Volumes 1-2, Mervin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria
- Tabi Po Volumes 1 and 2 (English translation), Mervin Malonzo and Adam David
The sixth child of the sixth child
I can’t remember how or when I first heard of the Trese comics series, but I do remember wanting to get all five volumes first before reading. It took me a while; for some strange reason, every book store I went to had Books 1-3 and 5 (which I got in one purchase), but 4 was always MIA.
I finally located Book 4 at a National Book Store branch in either Makati or Ortigas Center (can’t remember now), around a year after I began searching for it. I’d say waiting to complete the series was worth the late nights spent binge-reading.
The five Trese books — Murder on Balete Drive, Unreported Murders, Mass Murders, Last Seen After Midnight, and Midnight Tribunal — contain stories centered on Alexandra Trese, a bar owner in Malate and the designated “guardian” of Manila. As the city’s guardian, she’s tasked with keeping the peace between the humans and the creatures of the Philippine underworld. This job includes helping the Manila police department investigate and solve violent crimes suspected to be of a non-human nature.
For both her day and night job, Trese’s aided by the Kambal (the Twins), her suave male bodyguards with supernatural powers and a mysterious background; and known for their love of gunfights, women, and bickering with each other. The trio regularly interact with Captain Guerrero of the MPD and his officers to get the job done — which they do, most of the time.
Obviously, the cases won’t be complete without the myriad modernized mythical creatures that make up the Manila underworld. Who/What made the list of allies and baddies? Aswang, manananggal, tikbalang, wind creatures, tiyanaks, a raging fireball summoned via phone call, bangungot, nuno or duwende, a lightning god, a datu of war, and a former Philippine First Lady.
Yep. A former First Lady called “Madame”, and patterned after a young Imelda Marcos. Iiiiiiinteresting.
There are also references to well-known Filipino clans and personalities, trends, and urban legends. Aside from Mrs. Marcos, it was fun spotting cheeky nods to the Ayalas and Gokongweis; actors Edu Manzano, Richard Gomez, and Herbert Bautista; and even pambansang kamao (national fist)/Congressman/basketball coach and player Manny Pacquiao. The old urban legend of the monster kidnapping women from mall dressing rooms? That was mentioned in a Trese case. How about the famous White Lady of Balete Drive? It has the honor of being the basis for Trese‘s very first case.
One particular case paid tribute to Mars Ravelo, one of the creators of Darna. A case heavily referenced the Eraserheads‘ classic song Ang Huling El Bimbo. Another went into street racing — this was frequently (and illegally) done in sections of major Manila thoroughfares like C5 and Macapagal Boulevard, especially in the early ’00s, when The Fast and the Furious was a blockbuster and everyone wanted NOS in their cars. And another case is reminiscent of the zombie hordes in movies and TV shows past and present (or a Magandang Gabi, Bayan Halloween special episode)
As for the stories’ pace… well, you can expect that it sets a quick one, and not just because it’s in komiks form. The cases (particularly those in early volumes), are begun and wrapped up pretty quickly. Characters are introduced and withdrawn from the story in just a few panels; readers quickly move on to the next cases with little or no carry-overs from the previous one. It’s efficient story-telling, and it ensures you’ll be done with one Book in an hour or so.
Books 3 and 5 are the exceptions to this quick pace. For these volumes, Tan and Baldisimo did Book-long arcs instead of doing three or four unrelated cases. Mass Murders (a 2010 National Book Awards winner!) tackled Trese’s history and familial ties, and the origins of the Kambal. Midnight Tribunal, in turn, had Trese deal with vigilantes, and meet her possible romantic and political/tactical matches.
I love the way the supernaturals are integrated into modern life, and how they interact with Trese and her “tribe”. I never thought of these creatures disguised as street racers, fangirls, bodyguards, meat butchers, video game players and characters, hungry residents of a mall parking lot, electrical suppliers for an entire subdivision, boxing fans, or even warchildren. The images of tikbalangs and higantes (giants) playing sipa at Manila Polo Club is also awesome on paper, but undoubtedly fucking terrifying in real life. It does make you think of what lurks behind every corner, and if some people morph into scary creatures by nightfall.
Trese’s portrayal as a strong, independent woman who’s always ready to tussle is also awesome to see (whether in local or foreign comics). I’m interested in seeing her softer side, but I’m also OK with seeing just ass-kicker Trese. The Kambal are always adorable and entertaining, warchild masks on or off — they remind me of my guy friends and their siblings, minus the whole “supernatural gunslingers” part.
It was also nice to see massive changes in the noir-ish artwork throughout the years. A good example would be the depiction of Maliksi the stubborn tikbalang: the way he’s drawn in tikbalang form in Book 1 is very, very different from what he looks like in Book 5. As you proceed with each book, the black-and-white illustrations become more detailed and expressive.
For people like me who have little to no idea of Philippine mythology, the Trese comics series is a good place to start. Stories may progress quickly, but there will be enough mysteries and questions at the end to get you to buy the next installments. I’m excited to see the coming showdown between Trese and Madame, the developments with Trese and Maliksi, the ongoing battle between the Trese brothers vs. the aswang clans, and if Trese will take on more supernatural cases outside Manila.
This fifth child of the eighth child can’t wait for Book 6!
Trese, Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo
- Book 1: Murder on Balete Drive
- Book 2: Unreported Murders
- Book 3: Mass Murders
- Book 4: Last Seen After Midnight
- Book 5: Midnight Tribunal
The Monster vs. The Maharlika
I was in the hospital sometime this year for a checkup. While waiting for the second round of tests, I paid a visit to the Bestsellers/National Book Store branch at the second floor. Because that’s what you do when you have no reading material available for long medical tests. 😉️
I spotted a trade paperback graphic novel at the bottom shelf, with an aswang and what looked like an angel in chains. Then I checked the authors’ names at the bottom, one being very familiar as he’s a second cousin from my mother’s side of the family.
Yeah, OK, I’ll get this one, and Volume Two, too, I said.
And good thing I did. Skyworld, by ad men Mervin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria, is composed of several overlapping stories told through two books in Volume One. There’s Rianka the power- and revenge-hungry aswang and her horde — the ultimate baddies who impact historical events and eventually take over the entire Philippines. There’s Kaptan the fallen Skygod, roaming the Earth in search of the Maharlika (warrior king) after all faith has been lost. There’s Makabo the sword-wielding tikbalang, seeking vengeance for his father’s death by aswang, with Kaio the duwende as his ally. Lastly, there’s Andoy, the young boy whose prayers are unexpectedly answered by a being once thought dead.
There’s a wealth of supporting characters, too. Alexandra Trese, the Kambal, Capt. Guerrero and the Santelmo of the aforementioned Trese comics series make lengthy appearances in both volumes. We also have Kadasig, Kaio’s ride Anna-Marie, and the other supernaturals (duwende, tikbalang, engkanto and kapre) that will fight against Rianka and her aswang army.
The objectives are as follows: make Andoy fit for battle, retrieve Kaptan’s sword, defeat Rianka and the aswangs, and restore peace and order to whatever’s left of the Philippines and her people.
It takes some time for the characters and their storylines to become established in Volume One. But the groundwork pays off in the end: Volume Two gets moving more quickly, with big moments that’ll make you say a crisp putangina along with the characters.
I had originally planned to read Skyworld over a few days, but stayed up until 4AM to finish both volumes — I liked them that much.
Skyworld is rendered in black and white like Trese, has the latter’s main characters make cameos in the former, and deals with the same mythological creatures. But for me, that’s where the similarities end. Skyworld is darker; grittier; and more foul-mouthed, violent and complex compared to Trese. Carnage is aplenty here, whether in the present-day conflict or the flashbacks based on actual historical events.
The supernaturals were also integrated very well in the historical retellings. I loved Ignacio and Sta. Maria’s version of the Battle of Mactan; wanted my share of Yamashita’s gold; and felt my stomach turn at Rizal, Bracken and Bonifacio‘s gut-busting encounter with Rianka in Dapitan — the most gruesome part of the comics, if you ask me.
Also, unlike Trese, where you can expect Alexandra to save the day and prevent further chaos from happening, Skyworld actually lets everything turn to shit. It depicts Manila as an aswang-ravaged wasteland a decade after Rianka summoned the Bakunawa, with resistance forces scrambling to get the city back. Everything and everyone we know is gone. Will foreign allies help, or leave us to burn in hell? I can only hope no world leader actually utters this line: “We have to nuke Manila”.
Here’s the only thing that baffled me. I thought the story and characters could stand on their own without the two-volume assist from Trese & Co. Maybe things would’ve turned out differently, maybe they wouldn’t. I just don’t get why another komiks writer’s characters dominated over Skyworld‘s characters in some parts, “alternate timeline” or not. I appreciated seeing the Kambal again, this time with GUNS to go with their guns, but it would’ve been nicer if Ignacio and Sta. Maria’s characters had the spotlight from start to finish instead. It’s their series, not Trese’s.
Also: being the “leader” sucks. That ending was well-done, but… yeah, just read it, man.
Any plans to do a third Volume? What’s next for Andoy and his posse?
Skyworld, Mervin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria
- Volume One (Apocrypha and Testament)
- Volume Two (Prodigal and Requiem)
Feed the hungry baby
In Trese and Skyworld, we’ve seen mythical creatures all grown up and wreaking havoc on our country. They grow up so fast!
For the third installment, I wanted an origin story of sorts — one which explores how a mythical creature came to be, places him/her as the main character, and doesn’t automatically categorize him/her as a hero or villain who wants power or revenge or both. There was one komiks title that fulfilled all the criteria.
Tabi Po‘s a popular free Filipino-language online comic series by Mervin Malonzo; the two e-book editions I read were acquired through Flipreads, and translated to English by Adam David. It tells the story of Elias, a newborn aswang, and his journey from clueless and perpetually hungry flesh-eater to controlled and fully-aware carnival employee who dines on and talks to chickens.
Along the way, he has his fill of animals (but without fully satisfying his hunger for human flesh). In the second volume — priced at just P121 on Flipreads, and also DRM-ed — he meets fellow aswang Tasyo and Sabel who eventually serve as his mentors, and finds a town where they can feed and live fake lives as humans.
Here’s an animated version of the comic, posted earlier this month by the author/illustrator:
With a combined 107 pages for two e-book volumes, the English versions of Tabi Po are great and quick reads, but can also leave readers hanging and asking more questions. Why does Elias keep dreaming about that woman? Where did he come from? Who turned him? How did he get to the carnival? Who are Tasyo and Sabel? Who the hell is Simon?
The translated pages go only until Isyu (Issue) 10 of the online version, so if you want to know the latest developments in the story, I recommend reading the Filipino-language online comic (which is now on Isyu 16), or buying the full print version from Visprint.
What’s fascinating for me is that Tabi Po centers on such a vicious and bloody character, but the artwork is so… soft, pretty and delicate, a bit watercolor-y, even with the depicted brutality and gore. There’s some disconnect between the visuals and the dialogue/story, unlike in Trese and Skyworld where the illustrations are as blunt and edgy (for lack of better words) as their characters. Malonzo put up a brief drawing tutorial on his website, showing one page in Book 1 came to be — making readers appreciate even more the work that went into every panel, and showing budding illustrators how it’s done.
I also find Tasyo’s POV interesting: humans as livestock, and aswang as “gods and goddesses” blending in with the so-called livestock. It’s a clear reverse from how humans see all other species, or at least as allies, like in Trese and Skyworld. The Tabi Po e-books actually got me to root for Elias, and say “go for it, eat all the humans, young nekkie aswang!” — until I realized if he were real, he’d see me as food. Specifically:
Blood, guts, and a pound of flesh.
Nope. Not a good thought at all.
Can’t wait for the next e-books to see if Elias gets his answers — and if we get ours too!
Tabi Po, Mervin Malonzo
- Book 1 (English version)
- Book 2 (English version)